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Health Benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

by Crete Locals

  • Posted 7 months ago

The health benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) are extensive, making it a cherished staple in the Mediterranean diet – a lifestyle known for its wellness and longevity-promoting properties. Revered since ancient times as an ‘Elixir of Youth and Health,’ EVOO enriches dishes with its distinct taste while offering a multitude of health advantages. This blog delves into the myriad of ways EVOO can enhance well-being and suggests practical tips for integrating this ‘liquid gold’ into your daily meals.”

Olive Oil in the EU

The European Union is the leading producer, consumer and exporter of olive oil.

The EU produces roughly 67% of the world’s olive oil. Around 4 million hectares, mainly in the EU Mediterranean countries, are dedicated to the cultivation of olives trees, combining traditional, intensive and super-intensive groves.

Italy and Spain are the largest consumers of olive oil in the EU, with an annual consumption of around 500,000 tonnes each, while Greece has the biggest EU consumption per capita, with around 12 kg per person per year. In total, the EU accounts for around 45% of world consumption.

In Crete exist more than 290,000,000 olive trees for a population of 650,000 inhabitants. Corresponding about 446 olive trees for a single Cretan!!

There are eight different categories of olive oils and olive-pomace oils, whereas the extra-virgin olive oil category has the highest quality and has proven to have the most health benefits.

History of Olive Oil

The cultivation and production of olive oil have been entwined with the history and culture of people living near the Mediterranean Sea. Archaeological evidence shows that olives were consumed in this region as early as the Copper Age. Through the ages, not only was it a dietary staple, but it also served various other purposes such as providing lamp fuel and being used for cosmetics and pharmacology, as well as having ritualistic roles such as anointing royalty or warriors. Greek philosophers studied its nutritional and medicinal benefits with Aristotle and Hippocrates recommending olive oil to treat conditions such as skin inflammation, digestive problems, sunburns, and more.

olive tree Vouves
The most ancient olive tree in the world is in the village of Ano Vouves, Chania region, Crete. This ancient tree is 3000 years old.

Olive oil has been a major part of Cretan culture since the peak of the Minoan civilization in 2000 BC. Archaeological finds demonstrate that it was an essential part of the diet and lifestyle in those times. Additionally, many ancient olive oil pressing mills have been discovered around Crete, some of which are the oldest of their kind in Europe and show how long olive oil production on the island has gone on.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is an essential component of the Mediterranean diet

Mediterranean diet pyramid

The Mediterranean Diet (MD) centres around the consumption of a wide range of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts; moderate seafood and fish intake; and low consumption of red meat, sweets and other processed food – accompanied by the traditional glass of red wine. Olive oil is an integral part of the diet, either as virgin olive oil or extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). It is, in fact, the main source of healthy fats in the diet, which along with the other OO bioactive components, such as polyphenols, are often associated with longevity, well-being and a lower incidence of chronic diseases, particularly cardiovascular diseases in the populations living in the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean lifestyle also involves socializing and daily physical activity, as presented at the bottom of the MD pyramid.

Ways to Get Your Daily Dose of EVOO

  1. Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil to season your salads.
  2. Spread olive oil on your toast instead of butter, and add herbs, spices and seasonings for a better taste.
  3. Instead of using butter or oils high in saturated fat, opt for extra virgin olive oil when sautéing, roasting or grilling your meat and vegetables. Doing so will provide you with a tasty meal that is beneficial for your heart health.
  4. Many health experts recommend eating olive oil in the morning, with just a dash of lemon juice. The lemon is added to make the oil more palatable and boosts the digestive system.

Composition of Olive Oil

Olive oil is made mostly of fatty substances. There are three kinds of fatty substances called triglycerols, MUFAs (which is short for monounsaturated fatty acids and includes oleic acid), PUFAs (which stands for polyunsaturated fatty acids and contains linoleic acid), and SFAs (or saturated fatty acids which have palmitic acid). Olive oil also has a small number of other chemicals like hydroxytyrosol, oleuropein, oleocanthal, tyrosol, flavonoids and lignans.

Different olive oil types are classified according to their acidity, expressed as the amount of oleic acid (International Olive Council (IOC) standard). For instance, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) has a free acidity of <0.8 grams / 100 grams, virgin olive oil (VOO) has a free acidity of <2 grams / 100 grams, and ordinary OO has a free acidity of <3.3 grams/100 grams. During the refining process some of the important components, like phenolic compounds and squalene, are lost; thus, EVOO is the olive oil with the highest phenolic compound content with the mean total polyphenol content of >55 mg/100 g.

Health benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)

The benefits of OO, especially those of EVOO, in the human organism are well established, and they are mainly due to its composition. 

Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is known for its health benefits due to its unique composition of mostly oleic acid and many microconstituents such as phytosterols, squalene, tocopherols, phenolic compounds and terpenic acid derivatives. The most studied of these microconstituents are the phenolic compounds which have proven antioxidant qualities.

Health benefits of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Chemical structures of olive oil main phenolic compounds and the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of olive oil.

The polyphenols in Extra Virgin Olive Oil don’t just act as antioxidants, they can also alter gene expression to reduce inflammation. There is strong scientific evidence suggesting that these phenolic compounds can protect against a range of diseases caused by oxidative stress or inflammation, such as cancer, digestive issues, metabolic syndrome, obesity, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases.

Protective effects of EVOO on different diseases

Cancers

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) have been implicated in the aetiology of many cancer types; therefore a “control” over them would significantly reduce the risk of developing certain cancers. There is strong evidence that using EVOO as a main source of fats in someone’s diet can suppress certain cancer types, such as breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer due to its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. 

Cardiovascular diseases (CVD)

Cardiovascular diseases (CVD) are illnesses that can damage your heart and blood vessels. They might not make you feel sick right away, but they can cause serious problems if they’re not taken care of. Eating healthy food like Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) helps prevent these diseases because the unsaturated fats in EVOO help keep your blood vessels strong, so they won’t get blocked up. Eating EVOO as part of a healthy diet is a great way to protect yourself from CVDs.

Other diseases

Metabolic syndrome (MS) is characterized by a cluster of interrelated markers including obesity, hyperglycaemia, dyslipidaemia and hypertension. EVOO’s phenolic compounds have been related to the prevention or inhibition of MS-related diseases.

Recently, scientists have been looking at how gut microbiota can be controlled to better manage and prevent diseases. Studies have shown that eating foods high in phenolic compounds such as Extra Virgin Olive Oil can help regulate CVD and other risk factors by changing the activity and diversity of the gut’s microbial populations.

Eating Extra Virgin Olive Oil with its high phenolic content has been shown to help prevent Type II Diabetes (T2D). Studies have found that consuming EVOO can reduce fasting glucose and HbA1c levels, as well as body mass index and weight, which can lead to better metabolic control and lower levels of inflammatory adipokines in overweight T2D patients.

The fatty profile of Extra Virgin Olive Oil has been linked to preventing autoimmune and immune-mediated inflammatory diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, sclerosis, psoriasis and more.

Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil for skin treatments such as burns has been shown to aid better wound healing. Furthermore, treatment with oleuropein and olive leaf extract after UV radiation exposure has been found to reduce skin thickness and elasticity, and inhibit skin carcinogenesis and tumour growth. The polyphenols in EVOO have also displayed anti-inflammatory effects on human keratinocytes which can help suppress key epidermal cytokines associated with skin inflammation.

Production and Consumption of Olive Oil in EU (2021/2022)

Taking into account the above benefits of EVOO, it is obvious that EVOO should be used in abundance in the daily diet, as is the case with the people adhering to the remarkable Mediterranean Diet, who are experiencing lower risks of certain diseases that could be avoided via diet. EVOO – the “Blessed nutrient” and the “Elixir of youth and health” known from ancient times – is indeed the proof of Hippocrates’s “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”.

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